LimaLama: The Birthing of a Deadly Martial Art in Southern California
Updated: Mar 14
Editor's Intro: In 1965, American born (Pago Pago) Samoan fighter, Tino Tuiolosega, created the martial art, LimaLama in Los Angeles, California. The term, LimaLama, is loosely translated as "Hands of Wisdom."
His new martial art style was a mix of Samoan and Lua fighting techniques, Kenpo karate, Chinese kung fu, nearly every Japanese martial art, plus American boxing, and wrestling.
Grand Master (GM) Tino started an association with five martial artists from other fighting styles and introduced LimaLama to them.
He wanted only the fiercest fighters who could master the new fighting art and represent his brand of fighting.
One of those martial artists, a black belt in Kenpo Karate, (3rd from the left in the picture) was Sal Esquivel.
He trained many exceptional first generation fighters , one of which was twelve year old Lorenzo Rodriquez.
Lorenzo, born in Mexico, Teocaltiche, Jalisco in 1955 and raised in southern California since the age of three, would later become a Champion Kickboxer in the 70's and 80's.
Lorenzo (shaking GM Tino's hand in the picture) would eventually rise to 8th degree black belt in LimaLama directly under Grand Master Tino. Lorenzo expanded awareness of this unique martial art as a Champion Kickboxer, trainer and promoter to regions across the world including, Canada, Korea, Mexico and Thailand.
The following is an excerpt from the biography of Lorenzo Rodriquez, "LimaLama Warrior," tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2023:
Around 1970, Master Sal had moved his martial art class to East Los Angeles at the Cleveland House, run by a non-profit organization that catered to the neighborhood surrounding Boyle Heights, California. It had large meeting and game rooms and one gym large enough for practicing dance, basketball or in our case, martial arts.
Parents participated in community projects there and the kids in the neighborhood were able to play games; hop scotch, jump rope, basketball on the outdoor asphalt til the sun went down. You name it they did it. Even the cholos and wanna-be gangbangers hung out at the Cleveland House. The building had a pool table, ping-pong table and other game tables for dominoes or the rare chess game for the brainy kids.
When new people, especially young people showed up, the cholos would always question them, “De donde? (Where are you from?)” When we'd all arrive to the Cleveland House from El Monte, the Clicka (gang) recognized us as strangers and immediately wanted to know who we were. We’d try to tell them, “We’re from nowhere, we just came to train.” But they’d go on and on with the questions, challenging us, so we had to fight. This happened on a weekly basis.
One time, a cholo came into the gym as we were training. In those days, there was a lot of drug use happening and we could tell he was probably high on pills or paint thinner. He starts barking stupied shit, trying to choose a fight with anyone yelling, “You guys ain’t shit. Who’s the toughest mother fucker here?”
Master Sal told one of the brown belt instructors, “Go take care of that guy.” So, the instructor walks over to the cholo, telling the guy to leave but the cholo pulls out a big knife. I remember watching and thinking to myself, “Damn, this is gonna be fun to watch.” We had been learning some knife techniques and I wasn’t yet comfortable with training in weapons. But on this day, it looked like I would be getting a free lesson in knife fighting.
Master Sal was no joke. When he was mad, he was dangerous. I was excited to see what was going to happen. At the time, I never considered the seriousness of the situation. In my mind, it was clearly a no-win situation for the cholo. Master Sal was dangerous in all our eyes because we had all felt the power of his whipping wrist and palm strikes. Most of the time you didn't see his hands hit your body, he was that fast. When he did compete in tournaments or spar with black belts, he just toyed with them or quickly knocked them to the ground ending the match.
Seeing the homeboy's threat escalate, Master Sal had seen enough. He immediately walks over and tells the guy, "You need to leave now." The cholo ignored him and squared off for a knife fight. Master Sal, unimpressed, calmly told him, “If you don’t get out of here, you’re gonna be wearing that knife.”
The cholo quickly swung the knife at Master Sal in a slashing pattern. Master Sal knocked the cholo's knife from his hand by striking the forearm with his palm as he stepped forward. In the same fluid motion, he then hit the cholo in the face with the same hand. Then, repeatedly struck the cholo with combinations and kicks to the chest and leg. Poor homeboy didn't see what hit him. It was over in seconds.
Before the cholo hit the ground, he was already unconscious. Master Sal had put a large cut on his head, broke the homies jaw, ribs, and arm. He had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. We heard later that the cholo sued Master Sal for his injuries. It wasn’t the first time Master Sal had been in legal trouble because of his martial art skills. When he got into a fight, he fully intended to hurt someone badly.
After that incident, we were always prepared to fight when we arrived at the Cleveland House. Because they wanted to get back at us, the cholos burned the car top of one of our guy’s, convertible car. If we had to use the restroom three or four guys would follow us in and we’d have to fight our way out. I remember having to pee and when I turned around some guy would block the door. I’d tell him, “Let me out.” The cholo would say, “No, give me your money.” So, I would fight my way out. It happened so often that, after a while, Master Sal made us go to the restroom, two or three at a time for protection. The same with the girls who trained in LimaLama.
Other martial art schools would be invited by Master Sal to train with us. Because there were no trophies or rewards, we were just fighting for pride. My instinct was, “You came to my gym. You’re not gonna kick ass in my gym.” These matches were always better than fighting in the tournaments. We were fighting hard core because it was for our honor as LimaLama fighters. We fought mostly against Japanese Karate and Kung Fu gyms.
When we visited other schools we were in awe. They had mirrored walls and fancy equipment with thick mats across the floor to train on. All we ever knew was asphalt or cement floors. We didn't have gloves when I started or even body bags to hit. We hit each other and when we fell to the ground it hurt. Visiting these pretty dojos, we almost wanted to be hit so we could fall on the soft mats. But, of course, we didn't fall because they couldn't hit us. They were too fancy with their kicks and soft with their strikes. We didn't know that most of these schools didn't encourage full contact sparring.
They were used to pulling punches. GM Tino and Master Sal taught us differently. They always reminded us, "You got to feel it to learn it." We didn't pull punches or kicks in training, we hit hard and went home beat up most nights. Fighting with other schools that didn't allow full contact was easy, we’d eat them alive. It didn’t take long for them to turn down invitations. They didn’t want to be beat down anymore.
As I progressed in my training, I wanted to test myself. I had earned a Blue belt after a few years. I was sixteen and wanted to test my skills. But not in my neighborhood or school where I could get in trouble with my parents or the local gangs. Instead, I would go to the beach and challenge the Navy and Marine recruits who were drinking and hanging out while on leave from camp. I’d invite some friends to go but wouldn’t share my intentions with them. But I knew they’d have my back if something crazy happened. I didn’t have anything against the military, and I wasn’t a angry or frustrated young man. I just wanted to know if my training in LimaLama would really work in a fight. I figured it was best to "practice" with strangers outside of my neighborhood.
I would walk on the pier until I made eye contact with some guy. I would purposely say things to piss off any Squid (Navy) or Jarhead (Marine). They were easy to spot in their dorky clothes and cropped haircuts. I’d call them out for making eye contact with me, cursing at them, saying anything to start a fight. There was always one guy that took the bait. I was only five feet six inches tall. A lightweight too, so I looked like an easy target. Some of them would get their licks in, catching me in the back of my head or body, but I’d always win the fight. If I was lucky, one or two of their buddies would jump in to help and I’d kick their asses too.
It was fun and I never got in trouble with the law because guys in the military didn’t want to risk getting caught by the Military Police fighting with civilians. They were willing to give as good as they got. I appreciated those fights. Just juvenile “dust-ups,” where I made sure not to injure anyone. Just toe-to-toe fighting, with no serious injuries sustained by anyone, but plenty of bumps and bruises to make our weekend complete. Little did I know, that two years later, I would join the United States Army in peacetime and still be fighting.
1. LimaLama Warrior, R.A. Alvarado & GM, Lorenzo Rodriquez. Orale Press (Projected publication Fall 2023)
2. Photos courtesy of GM, Hector Ventura of Ming Shuang Tao